* * *
It wasn't very often that the forces of evil worked together. Usually they were too busy squabbling, arguing over who looked best in black fishnets and thigh-high pleather boots, fighting over the sparkly purple eyeshadow, and so on.
But every once in a while, a plan came together. A plan with dire consequences of direness for the Rangers, so dire in their direness that it could potentially destroy thesauruses *everywhere*.
* * *
"Guinea pig food?" Shane asked.
Cam sighed, wondering why this was such a hard thing for Shane to grasp considering he wasn't *that* stupid. "It's not a complicated concept. I need to fix the damage you caused in the zords, Dad's hungry, he can't go himself, ergo someone needs to go for him. I said 'please'."
"No, you didn't."
"I want ergos," Dustin said cheerfully as he bounced down the stairs into Ninja Ops. "With syrup, please. Oh, and cheese. Wait, what are ergos?"
Cam tossed him the empty box of guinea pig food. "Not edible."
Dustin snatched the box deftly out of the air, then looked at it. It was striped in green and pink and had a picture of an anime-style guinea pig giving a cheerful thumbs-up. "Then it's not nice to feed it to sensei!"
"The food's edible," Shane cut in hastily. "And we have to go get some just like that."
Cam exhaled at last, already beginning to think of the lines of code he'd have to rebuild by hand thanks to the damage to the Dolphin Zord's mainframe. "No syrup and cheese," he noted, wondering at just how much cast iron lined Dustin's stomach.
"No ergos," Shane agreed.
"Pfft, you're the one of all of us with the biggest ergo," Dustin scoffed. "Your head's so big I'm often kinda surprised you can fit through doorways, jeez."
"Who's got cheese?" Tori asked enthusiastically as she skipped down the steps. "I could really go for some cheese."
Cam let out what could only be called a whimper.
* * *
Marah leaned forward and grinned at them all on her screen as they bickered about various schemes to get the Rangers. It wasn't every day that the planets aligned and the bad guys got their hands on a multi-parallel space-time inversion that could be accessed from various locations and years, after all. It had to be used right. Though apparently some of them thought that meant puzzle boxes with rhyming clues and were already arguing about what 'rhyme scheme' to use, whatever that was.
"Well, it doesn't have to be anything complicated," she said brightly. "What about a mall?"
Uncle was going to be *so* pleased with her.
* * *
"On your way back, pick up more peanut butter for the theme weekend!" Fran called as the rangers *ran* towards the sounds of battle. At least the shop was empty for now, though she was expecting the 12.39 rush any second. She girded her lions, metaphorically speaking (yes, she knew the proper phrase, but girding lions sounded so much nicer).
* * *
"I could eat," Chip agreed, beaming broadly at them all. "And the latest edition of 'Batman: The Brave and the Bald' should be in."
Vida blinked at him, stopping short of the automatic door's sensor. The heels on her new stripy boots clacked on the tiled floor. "'The Brave and the Bald'?"
"Batman has to get old sometime. It's a really interesting exploration of the process of ageing."
* * *
Jayden didn't like the looks of it at all. "I don't think this is what Jii meant." It wasn't Red Ranger instincts, for all that he'd quite like to blame his unease on that. It was pure worry about keeping his faux father figure happy. Which wasn't as easy as when he was eight and all he had to do to make Jii smile was get his spin kicks right and bring Jii home an ashtray in the shape of a hand from school. (Never mind that Jii didn't actually smoke.)
Emily reached over and patted his shoulder, without taking her eyes off the road. At least he could trust her to drive the big Shiba car. Mike tended to treat driving like a video game. Emily occasionally made 'vroom' noises but that was harmless, really. "I don't know of anywhere else around here where we can get the right type of rice. Don't worry so much. You'll get wrinkles."
Jayden gave her a woebegone look, but she just laughed.
"And they have a new flavour in the icecreamery!" Mike crowed. "Chocobubbleberrynana surprise!"
"I can feel my arteries hardening already," Kevin grumbled.
Mia said cheerfully, "Kevin, it'll be okay. I think it sounds yummy."
* * *
"We're out of polenta," Kai called.
Damon came out of the bathroom, towel around his waist, scrubbing at his hair with another one. Kai took a moment to enjoy the view. "So let's go get some."
"We're all off official work today, and if Ranger business happens, we'll know."
Man had a point.
* * *
Madison strolled in through the south entrance, followed by her team. This was nice. Wasn't often that the five of them got to go anywhere together without being at work, on Ranger business, or shopping for emergency pants for Xander (and wasn't that a long story).
* * *
Mike got out of the car in the basement carpark and grinned at Kevin. "You'll love it," he promised. They followed him in.
* * *
Kai frowned, because this didn't look right, but maybe they'd been redecorating since the last time he was here? Maya bumped Kai's shoulder with her own. Kai gave her an apologetic look and stopped scratching his head at the paint combinations on the southeast quadrant. Really, aubergine with taupe?
He raised his hands at Maya. "I'll go quietly." The others fell into step behind him, with Kendrix muttering something goodnatured about how he *never* went *anywhere* quietly.
* * *
RJ called to them. "I know a short cut!"
"Is this an actual short cut or is it like the time you took us on a five minute walk for icecream that ended up taking two and a half hours?" Casey asked, amused.
RJ grinned. "Just come this way. They make the *best* peanut butter in here."
* * *
Tori and Shane caught up to Dustin where he was gazing in a store window. They poked him in the ribs from opposite sides at the same time, which made him do a sort of anti-twitch, held perfectly in place. "What was that for?" he protested.
"Supermarket's *inside*," Tori pointed out, smiling. "It works better if you go through the doors instead of trying to force your way through a window by wishing really, really hard."
Dustin pressed his nose to the glass again. "But the puppies," he said. "It's better to look at them from out here because if I look at them inside, I feel like maybe I could get one and they're real and stuff. Out here it's kinda like TV."
"Come on, Dustin. I'll get you icecream," Shane tugged at his arm.
Tori tugged at the other arm. They walked towards the northeast entrance.
* * *
Marah grinned gleefully at her screen. In the various time-space locations, every single team was walking into the mall. All she had to do now was close the forcefield thing that would hold them all in place and transport them to another layer in space-time, keeping the actual malls in all the actual locations intact, with all the normal humans inside, perfectly safe, while simultaneously flashing radiation through each Ranger's body to transform them.
Or, as that scorpion woman had said, rolling her eyes, "Hit the big red button."
(Not that she was entirely happy about normal humans being perfectly safe, but the main aim was to get the Rangers!)
Marah tried out her evil laugh. "Mwahahaha!" It ended in a cough and a scratchy throat, but still, she was making progress. Uncle would be SO pleased. The last time she'd tried it, she'd scared Zurgane so much he'd fallen off his chair, and um, squashed the My Little Pony empire that Uncle had been playing- practising with on the floor. Apparently Sweetie Belle would never be the same.
Oh, yeah, Uncle would probably be pleased about her plan to off the Rangers, too, which she was basically the leader of even over all those other evil people! And her hair was *way* prettier. There wasn't enough power to actually *destroy* all of the Rangers, but the traps in the various parts of the mall and the liiiiittle transformational surprise they had in store (ha ha ha) for them would take care of that. And she'd done it all herself, apart from the help from other villains! She was the only one villing on Lothor's ship.
She punched the big red button.
A fraction of an instant too quickly.
* * *
The Samurai Rangers were trapped in the oscillating waveform, and transformed.
The Jungle Fury Rangers were trapped in the oscillating waveform, and transformed.
The Mystic Force Rangers were trapped in the oscillating waveform, and transformed.
The Lost Galaxy Rangers were trapped in the oscillating waveform, and transformed.
Tori and Shane were trapped, but Dustin turned at the last instant because one of the puppies whimpered. A big orange organic blurty screen slid through where he and Tori and Shane were connected by their grip on his arms. Didn't hurt him at all, but they went all wavy and became six year olds.
Dustin blinked at them, astonished, but their grip on his upper arms made him lurch forward and he got sucked into the big fizzy blobby screen thingummy.
* * *
Cam straightened in his seat. "Dad," he said, horrified. "Massive energy reading in the heart of town. I can track the Rangers' morphers but something's gone wrong."
He tapped into the security monitors in the mall. It didn't work. He frowned, and tried again, as Dad somersaulted down onto the keyboard next to him. "Patience, Cameron."
Cam shook his head. "No, I can't be patient, Dad!" He boosted the signal and got something, at last, but the image wavered like it was underwater.
"I can't be patient when the Rangers have been sucked into an alternate dimension," he said at last, sighing. "And turned into children. There appear to be multiple Rangers trapped there, from different teams across time. Only one adult."
Sensei paused. "I see. Well, Cameron, Dustin has his own strengths."
"Tori's done more babysitting."
"I believe Tori's also had more firetrucks called than Dustin, though according to Shane, they're quite close in 'the sweeps'. Whereas these 'sweeps' about when you'll get your first grey hairs, those appear to be quite clear-cut."
Cam thought for a moment about how bored a ninja sensei must get as a guinea pig, if he felt the need to resort to learning *this* much about the Rangers' lives.
"Okay, well, he'll have to lead them to the far end of the mall. Without getting anyone killed. There's an exit there. I'll figure out a way to tell him."
And watch out for Lothor attacking, scan and shrink the latest Asimov's for Dad, and also didn't he have clothes on the washing line? Just another easy day. Cam shrugged, and got to work.
* * *
"What happened to you?" Tori, from one side while 'The Girl From Ipanema' played in the background.
Shane, from the other. "Why'd you get big?"
Dustin clapped a protective hand to his stomach. "I had pizza for lunch, dude, it's not that unreasonable for me to be a little bloat- oh. Um. I don't know. I didn't change, it was you! You guys were normal size a minute ago but now you're really tiny! And kinda cute!"
Tori instantly kicked him in the shin. Dustin yelped, hopping his way across the beige tiled floor back to the entrance. The door refused to open.
The door continued to refuse to open.
He hopped back onto the mat, then forward again into the beam from the electric eye.
The door did not open, and the orange screen thing was still in place. In fact, he could see it through all the windows and doors that should've shown him images of outside.
"Crud," Dustin groaned.
Shane shook his head. "I'm not allowed to use that word. You'd better not, either, or I'll noogie you. Don't think I won't, dude."
* * *
"There are traps," Cam said grimly. "And I can't get onto the other teams' people. I can only read ours at all because Dustin's entry was halfass- um, not completely the same as the others. I'll see if I can get through to his morpher."
* * *
"Cam," Dustin said with great relief. He didn't mind malls normally, found 'em kinda soothing, in fact. But this one was starting to creep him out. There were no people apart from tiny adorable deadly Shane and Tori, who were currently perched on top of the edge of a fountain, peering critically at him. Every tiny sound *echoed*. He was reasonably sure there were mice in the distance somewhere, mice playing something like Star Wars, in fact.
". . . -tin. . . . kids.
"Yeah, I know," Dustin said patiently. "But they remember me okay, and they trust me." He picked a pebble out of his hair. "Mostly. I can get 'em out of here."
* * *
Cam groaned, and tried to speak more distinctly. At least he could hear Dustin all right, well, mostly. "Dustin, unless you can get to the far exit you'll be stuck. You need to be careful."
* * *
"Dustin. . . .-uck. You. . ."
Dustin stared at his morpher.
* * *
"-need to get testy!"
Cam repeated himself not quite as patiently, and after a while he and Dustin understood each other.
Well, as much as they ever did.
* * *
Dustin rubbed a hand through his hair, thinking. At least he had an advantage in that he'd known Tori and Shane at this age. It'd be way harder if they'd only met each other last year or something, and he didn't know how he'd cope with the other teams at all. One step at a time. Shane and Tor first. But it'd still be hard to convince them to trust him, to do what he said.They were never big on that at the time.
"Hey, guys, there's icecream this way!" he said cheerfully, and they instantly jumped off the side of the fountain and fell in behind him. There'd be icecream. There *had* to be icecream. Even evil malls had icecream, right?
If there was no icecream he was so dead. He remembered how hard six year old Tor could hit.
* * *
The Mystic Force Rangers were the first ones he found, using their wands on all sorts of things. Dustin grinned as he saw the cute little tykes waving them around, but then he had to drop to the floor with a yelp as a power bolt shot over his head.
"Uncle!" he yelled.
The one in pink shouted back, "I'm not your uncle!"
. . .
"No, it means I give up!"
The green one braiding the fake ivy on the walls turned and gave him an interested look. "You do? That was pretty easy. Are you a wimp?"
Dustin nodded fervently. "Totally. One hundred and twelve percent. If I have to fight, I fight, but otherwise why bother? I don't want to get my head blown off over *nothing*."
Green kid pointed his wand at Dustin, who felt himself go pale. Cam hadn't exactly gone into great detail about the abilities of all the child Rangers but he'd made it pretty clear that they all had their usual powers, even if they were physically six and didn't have their usual *memories*. But green kid didn't do anything with it, just pointed. "You like to talk! Me, too!"
"Talk, run away, whatever works, little guy," Dustin assured him, getting to his feet unsteadily. "Look, I know how to get out of here, and I need brave Rangers to help me. You guys up to it?"
"Do we get icecream?" shouted the boy in red.
The kid in blue smacked him. "Manners!"
The yellow one scampered up beside him and peeked around him to Tori (inspecting a fingernail) and Shane (arms folded, glowering). "I like your shirt," he confided to Dustin. "I have one just like it, except Batman's got two ears."
Dustin laughed. "Yeah, this one's faded a little. Now. Howsabout you introduce yourselves?"
* * *
The Jungle Fury people were sitting in a circle outside the Sunshine Fashion Store ('Bring brightness to your shirts and laughter to your pants!') listening to the purple one tell stories, at least. That was relatively easy.
The Lost Galaxy kids were underneath a holiday lights display (pink, blue and green), on top of the holiday lights display (yellow, who seemed able to levitate judging by how fast she could move vertically), and red (sound asleep).
The first attack came when they tried to track down the Samurai Rangers, who seemed to be the ones playing Star Wars.
"I know this is traditional when Ranger teams meet, but you're only six!" Dustin shouted from behind a garbage can. Said garbage can was too small to cover his butt, which was getting pummelled by flying sombreros. "And who attacks with sombreros, *really*?!"
"We're only six and I messed up the symbol for hot dogs!" called the pink one, quite reasonably, really.
Ah. He had a good point himself. An excellent arguing tactic. "Hey, I know a Samurai Ranger, and he's really nice to- he likes us- he hasn’t killed me in my sleep yet!"
Okay, maybe it wasn't that excellent. Dustin sighed, then realised that the Samurais weren't actually attacking anyone else. Just him.
There was a sudden warm weight on his back, and Tori's voice in his ear. "I'm boooored. Where's the icecream?"
"If you can get them to stop pelting me with budget-priced headwear, we can get closer to it?"
Five minutes and a whispered conversation with Yellow Samurai later -- including way too many giggles for Dustin's liking -- the mini-Samurai Rangers were part of their group and everyone was friends. Well, friendly enough. Well, not actively trying to kill, wedgie, or noogie each other.
* * *
"You're approaching one of the attack zones," Cam warned.
* * *
Dustin put his fingers in his mouth and whistled wetly, bringing all the kids if not to him, exactly, at least to a state of alertness. They were all still Rangers, for good or bad, and the lights were flashing on and off oddly in this big empty section in the food court (no icecream store). "Trouble, kids," he said grimly.
* * *
* * *
Dustin put a hand on his hip and sashayed around to the left, following Kendrix's lead as the bongoes played. She was laughing, with Jayden twirling magnificently behind her. "Yes," he told Cam.
* * *
Cam repeated Dustin's words grimly to his dad. "They're being assaulted with funky island rhythms."
"All right, tell Dustin- excuse me?"
"No, it doesn't make sense to me, either."
* * *
Marah bent forward, wishing she'd invested in a cushion for her chair because her butt was getting awfully stiff. It was so *boring* waiting for people to die!
"That's amazing dance frenzy gas," she said gleefully to Dayu, who was in a window inset into the corner of her main screen.
Dayu coughed. "Oh, I was supposed to get the killing gas? Whoops."
"They're just dancing."
"They're just dancing," Dayu confirmed gloomily.
"Okay, then it's good the budget stretched to a proper attack near the exit!"
* * *
"I need to pee," Leo said again.
Dustin gripped him tighter on the ankles. It'd just been easier to put Leo on his shoulders. Kid loved wandering off, and Dustin'd taken him to the toilet himself not ten minutes earlier. He didn't need to pee. "Don't do it on the back of my head, man, please. We'll be there soon."
"I'm tired," piped up Mike.
Kevin shook his head. "I'm not! I could go another hundred billion yards! And a bazillion more!" Except then he betrayed himself by yawning so wide his jaw cracked. "Though I'd like to swim it instead."
Maddie brightened. "Hey, you're water, too, right? We should talk about battle tactics. Dustin says we're Rangers, and we can all morph and stuff."
Tori flanked Kevin with Maddie. Kevin looked utterly terrified but let himself be dragged off. Dustin spared a thought about Kevin not being taken to discuss battle tactics but instead being taken to be strung up somewhere by his ankles -- girls were scary -- but then he resolved philosophically to listen out for any screaming.
There was only so much he could do, and given that he had to watch Maya, who'd somehow managed to encourage vines to grow so she could swing along their path with them instead of walking, and Kendrix who had to be dragged away from interesting bugs, and Lily who kept trying out dance moves, and Nick who was actually really helpful with the 'YOU ARE HERE' maps but kept telling Dustin to go a different way 'cos it'd be more exciting, and Emily who'd glommed onto Maya like she was her big sister or something and was only managing to cling to the vines with Maya's help, and Shane who was actually being out-shown-off by Mike with various attempts at parkour moves, and all the rest of them, it was *difficult*.
He'd bought them all snacks at the little market, but they were all crazy sugary things and he had a suspicion that didn't help. Also, while he had no problem with snacks from other countries with labels in languages he couldn't read, he had a nasty suspicion that these snacks were actually from other planets. Hadn't had any choice, though. It was either buy the kids something space-carbonated and space-sugarised or get eaten himself.
It was almost a relief when the attack came.
* * *
Cam sucked his lower lip between his teeth as he watched the group get attacked by foot soldiers from all teams. Dustin waded into the fray instantly, using his martial arts skills and ninja abilities to toss grunts to all sides, but there were just so many of them.
* * *
There was a tiny voice from next to Dustin. "Go! Galactic!"
The green one. Dustin grinned. "Everyone morph!" he bellowed, having no idea how it worked that they all had their Ranger abilities and *some* knowledge, while otherwise being six years old and not remembering their adult lives. He suspected a plot device, but when he heard the shouts go up all over the plaza area he really didn't care.
"Go go Samurai!"
"Ninja Storm, ranger form, ha!"
"Jungle beast, spirit unleashed!"
"Magical source, mystic force!"
* * *
Except it wasn't enough. Cam thumped the edge of the console, then looked at the smudge guiltily and fetched a cloth.
* * *
Dustin twisted in mid-air, boosting Xander so he could get up higher to shoot his restraining plants at people, then somersaulted before he came down, to catch a strike from a staff meant to take Emily's head off.
"I'm so sorry!" she gasped at him, then turned and deftly blocked three more strikes so fast he couldn't see her move, including one aimed at *him*.
Dustin laughed. "You're doing fine. Great, even."
* * *
"Dustin, there are more coming from the south!"
* * *
Dustin looked blearily at his morpher, wondering what on Earth Cam meant this time, when they were *swarmed*. Crap. Crap, crap, crappety crap. Crap on toast. Crap on a stick. Crap on sliced crap with crap on the side and crap a la orange.
The kids were coping okay, but it was scary enough dealing with this stuff when you were completely grown up and mature like he was. They were all tired and probably needed a nap almost more than he did.
He used a grunt to hit another grunt, then flipped his way up on top of a flagpole. "Guys!" he called. "If we finish them off, I'll buy you all icecream!"
He pointed. Yes, there it was. The promised land. The icecream store. He was terrified of setting them all loose with even more preservatives and sugar inside them, but if this all went to plan they'd be going back home like that anyway.
Not. His. Problem. He just had to focus on getting them all out alive.
A great roar went up, and grunts started to go down, and *stay* down.
* * *
"You had an exit built in?" the woman with the pointy braidy thing at the back of her hair demanded.
Marah nodded uneasily. "Well, yes. Uncle always says to build in an escape route. . ."
"For us, not for the Rangers!"
Marah coughed as Kapri walked past, wondering if Kapri might be appeal-to-able for help. Kapri turned and poked her tongue out at Marah.
Never mind. "I totally hid it and it was all her idea," she gabbled hurriedly, grabbing Kapri and shoving her down into the seat. Kapri squawked. Marah ran. "Uuuuuuuncle, guess what Kapri did!"
* * *
Dustin rubbed his chin in thought as he looked up at the sign behind the giant plant in the salmon-coloured pot, which read TOTALLY NOT THE EXIT BACK TO YOUR OWN HOME TIMES AND PLACES WITH YOUR MEMORIES AND SIZES CONVENIENTLY RESTORED.
He dabbed absently at a grubby mark on Chip's nose. Chip said, "I think we should go that way."
* * *
"I suddenly want hot dogs," Mia said thoughtfully, looking down at the icecream cone in her hand.
"Eww," Mike said with admiration. "Mia, icecream and hot dogs? Hard *core*."
"I'll get you a hot dog after I find the rice," Jayden promised.
Kevin opened the car door and hopped inside without taking his eyes off his icecream. It was basically fluorescent, red/yellow/green/blue/pink, and he was licking at it as if it was life itself.
Mike decided, with great restraint, not to say anything.
* * *
"This is not polenta," Kai announced, licking his icecream tentatively.
Leo slung an arm around his shoulders. "Go with the flow, man."
"Yes, because Kai does that a lot," Kendrix giggled.
* * *
"No icecreams in a comic store," Chip yelped. "C'mon, are you people trying to get me thrown out?"
* * *
"Peanut butter, peanut butter," RJ patted his pants thoughtfully, pulling out various things. "Keys. Toy ocelot. Grammar primer. Vial of ambergris. Peanut butter! Give me my icecream back, please."
Fran dutifully gave him back his icecream, because there was no way she was going to eat it, and cheered as she took the peanut butter.
* * *
"If I don't remember having memory loss, does it still count?" Shane asked as the three of them descended the stairs into Ninja Ops like a herd of choleric goats.
Cam resisted the urge to hug them, and merely rose from his seat with a grin. "Welcome back." It was easier to just not get into the details, sometimes. "Don’t worry about the guinea pig food. Just don't touch me with that icecream."
Tori shrugged. "It's surprisingly nice, once you let your sinuses melt?"
Dustin strolled towards Cam and put out his hand. Surprised, Cam high-fived him, then found a box of guinea pig food in his hand. "Don’t worry, man. We took care of everything."
"Thank you, Dustin. That was very impressive, getting out of a multi-parallel space-time inversion like that."
Dustin just nodded and smiled, having absolutely no idea what any of that meant. "My pleasure, Sensei!"